Iraqi Kurds caught in the middle between the Turkish military and the PKK

The torching of a Turkish military installation by protesters in northern Iraq late last month shows Iraqi Kurds are caught between their powerful northern neighbour and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that uses the mountainous region as a base in its fight for self-rule in southeast Turkey.

Kurdish protesters stormed the Turkish military facility in the Amedi district of Iraqi Kurdistan on Jan. 26, setting fire to tents and vehicles. Demonstrators were pictured standing on top of a Turkish tank. One protester was killed and at least 10 others wounded in the demonstration sparked by the killing of four people in a Turkish air strike.

Though Turkish forces have maintained a presence in a string of bases inside Iraq near the border for some two decades, it was the first time Iraqi Kurds had attacked one of them. Iraqi Kurdish security forces eventually dispersed the crowd, and Turkish jets flew low over the area.

Since the collapse of the two-year ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, there has been an upsurge in Turkish air strikes in northern Iraq, where the rebel group has rear bases as part of its three-decade-old conflict with security forces in the nearby mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq also opposes the PKK presence on its territory, it is loathe to take military action against fellow Kurds for fear of a public backlash.

Because Iraqi and Kurdish authorities have so far not prevented Turkey’s ongoing air strikes and military presence in the region, popular anger and demonstrations could increase.

“If Turkey continues to target civilians, people will be inclined to confront Turkish bases directly,” said Sarkawt Shams, an MP in the Iraqi parliament from the Iraqi Kurdish opposition New Generation party. Turkish air strikes, he said, “prove the KRG is not there for its people during difficult times.”

Turkey said the attack on its base in Amedi was carried out by PKK members who disguised themselves among civilians to fuel conflict between Turkish forces and local residents. A presidential spokesman said Turkey was committed to doing everything in its power to prevent civilian casualties. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was more combative. “We do not recognise the right to live of anyone who takes aim at our peace and prosperity, at home or abroad,” he said.

Iraq said Turkish troops fired on protesters during the attack and summoned the Turkish ambassador, but also said it “renewed its commitment not to allow the use of Iraqi territory to carry out acts affecting the security of neighbouring countries”, a reference to the PKK.

The KRG likewise expressed sorrow for the casualties, but also said “there is a disruptive hand behind these events”, another reference to the PKK, and vowed to take legal action against those who organised the protest.

Turkish jets have intermittently carried out air strikes and launched ground offensives into northern Iraq since the 1980s, citing an agreement with then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that allowed Turkish troops to cross the border in hot pursuit of PKK militants and its right to self-defence after the region came under Iraqi Kurdish control after the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraqi Kurds have long complained of civilian killed in Turkey’s attacks. The most notorious incident came in 2011 when Turkish warplanes killed 35 civilians near the border village of Roboski, mistaking a group of smugglers for PKK fighters. More recently, the KRG expressed concern over civilian deaths in an air strike in March last year. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces also condemned a Turkish air strike in November that they said killed one of its soldiers.

The Iraqi government has also condemned Turkey’s military presence in 11 military bases in Iraq's north, including inside the Kurdish region. In 2016, before the battle to dislodge Islamic State from Mosul, the Iraqi parliament called on Turkish troops to leave the country, but to no avail.

Iraq is more occupied with tensions between Iran and the United States than the Turkish military presence and Turkey is a big trading partner and an important export route for Iraqi oil.

For the KRG, Turkey is an economic lifeline and cheap Turkish food and sundry items fill stores in Iraqi Kurdistan. Lawk Ghafuri, a political analyst in the Kurdistan regional capital Erbil, said it was not surprising the KRG did not take a stronger stance against Turkey.

“The KRG statement was weak, but they have no other choices,” Ghafuri said. The KRG needs Turkey to stay afloat economically, he said. “The KRG has economic ties with Ankara, which is one of the source of resources for the KRG … The KRG’s ties with Turkey won’t change and will continue, and most probably will improve in the coming months.”

But the anger among Kurds near the border is not solely directed at Turkey. Many want the PKK to leave as well. Throughout the Iraqi Kurdistan region, the PKK and its affiliates have little public support.

“The protests broke out as people are fed up with both the PKK and the Turkish bombings,” Ghafuri said.

The KRG coordinator for international advocacy, Dindar Zebari, said the Kurdish government was opposed to both Turkey and the PKK’s actions in the area. “We don’t allow anyone to use our territory to attack our neighbouring countries or make security threats … KRG civilians should no longer fall victims of the conflicts of other countries,” he said.

Zebari said 360 villages in northern Iraq had been evacuated due to the bombings and criticised both Turkey and the PKK.

“They have tried to return to their homes, but PKK has rejected their demand,” he said. “As the KRG, we are not happy that those air strikes result in civilian casualties.”